Outdoors

A late summer fishing tale

Wildside column: Dog days can be good - at times

A bald eagle overlooks the Wapsipinicon River shortly after dawn on Monday. While perhaps affecting human anglers, the d
A bald eagle overlooks the Wapsipinicon River shortly after dawn on Monday. While perhaps affecting human anglers, the dog days of summer have not discouraged eagles, herons and kingfishers from pursuing fish and other aquatic prey. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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By Orlan Love, correspondent

Many anglers believe fishing success suffers during the dog days of summer, from late July through August, when the season’s hottest weather prevails.

As one who has often enjoyed some of his best days fishing for river smallmouth during this period, I have discounted this so-called common knowledge as myth — until this summer.

Sure, I have had some disappointing summer outings, but I always attributed them to bad weather (usually an east wind), murky water (usually an algae bloom) or river level fluctuations (usually a rapid rise after a heavy rain) and not to the dog days — until this summer.

From mid-July through mid-August, the Maquoketa and Wapsipinicon rivers have yielded few smallmouth bass and hardly any big ones. With characteristic humility I have concluded the fault lies not with me but with the fish.

Ideally you’d like to catch many fish with a lunker or two among them. Those are great and memorable days, much rarer than the good days in which you enjoy one or the other but not both. Until last week, neither was my default setting.

When a bass does bite, it does so feebly, conveying the impression that it does not really care about your lure or eating in general.

It’s as if the normally voracious and pugnacious bass are so stuffed with prey that they can’t take another bite, which is probably the case.

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Biologists say prey populations peak in the heat of summer, which correlates with my observations of massive minnow schools in the shallows and bits of crayfish regurgitated by the occasional caught fish.

Rather than feeding round the clock, the bass periodically gorge themselves between hours of rest and digestion, when they are indifferent to food and hard to catch.

My response has been to fish harder than ever, concentrating on making accurate casts, remaining fully alert to the faintest fish contact during the retrieve and persevering through the back and shoulder aches that inevitably accompany too many unrewarded casts.

Has it helped? Only in the sense that in the past two weeks, rather than quitting in disgust, I have on four occasions been there for brief flurries of bass action.

On the first such outing more than a week ago, I had caught three small lackadaisical bass in two hours. Then in that same previously unproductive water, I caught five more in five minutes, four of them nice, before the morning sun rose above the trees, its glaring light obliterating the shadows and ending the action.

On the second such outing Monday, casting into a shaded rocky bank, I had caught six lethargic bass in two hours, all ranging from tiny to small. My back aching and my patience exhausted, I tied on a little top-water lure — something I could fish fast to hasten my exit — and caught eight bass in 20 minutes on my way out.

On Tuesday evening, near the end of another three-hour backache, a pair of lunkers just before dark reminded me why I like fishing.

And on Wednesday evening, an hour into what threatened to be another disappointing outing, the bass started gorging themselves. In the last hour of daylight, I caught 15 of them, and I would probably have caught a couple more if it hadn’t taken so long to land the rare 20 incher that frothed the river before I beached her on a sandbar for a photo.

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Wading back to the pickup in the dark, still buzzed with adrenaline, my back and shoulders feeling like a million bucks, I dismissed what I hope will be my last thought this year of the dog days of summer.

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